Camping as a Special Needs Family

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We’ve been camping as a special needs family since our oldest daughter was a toddler. Being in the outdoors makes me feel at ease – I feel the stress melt away.

It’s kind of amazing – the impact of the outdoors on the whole family. We sleep better. The kids behave better. Play hard. Eat well. It’s like everything is in balance.

Our camping set up

This year, thanks to pandemic life, camping is about our only hope for a mid-summer getaway.

Camping hasn’t always come easy – I can remember nights when my kiddo would be up all night in the throes of a full-on meltdown, much to the chagrin of our neighbors. Tents and campers are far from soundproof. I’m happy to say that she’s better acclimated now that she knows what to expect, and people today, for the most part, are more accepting than 10 years ago.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges – my eldest kiddo isn’t a fan of the way sand feels, so trips to the beach take extra effort. Her sister, however LOVES the beach. We try to make one (albeit short) camping trip to listen to the sound of the waves. Sand between our toes? Not so much. Beach shoes, oversized blankets, an umbrella and some Uno cards seem to make the beach tolerable for our oldest.

We bring supplies to paint rocks – a quiet, relaxing activity – here’s a unicorn fish creation!

There are also benefits to enjoying the outdoors, like soaking up the sun and enjoying fresh air.

Mood-boosting outdoor air

Perhaps it’s fresh air. I’ve read that getting more oxygen to the brain increases serotonin. We just feel happier.

Apparently, there’s research to show that spending time in fresh air increases energy in 90 percent of people. “Nature is fuel for the soul, ” according to Richard Ryan, researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. He continues, “Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.”

We unplug

I’ve talked about the effect of blue light and over-exposure to electronics on sleep. Being tethered to our cell phones and accessible 24/7 is a leading cause of stress. A University of California, Irvine study found that people who had access to email with a steady stream of messages throughout the day had higher heart rates than those who were cut off from electronic communication. Therefore, taking an off-the-grid vacation such as camping can help to fully unwind.

Get the D

Vitamin D from sunlight exposure helps to elevate mood. It improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure by relaxing your blood vessels. Sunlight is the most important source of vitamin D. Ultraviolet rays from the sun increase the speed of production of vitamin D in the skin.

Choosing HOW to camp

There are many different options. What you choose will depend upon many factors, including how much you love the outdoors (or want the creature comforts of home), ability or desire to set-up/tear down, and of course cost. For me, I’ll include age on my list – my back doesn’t have the resiliency it did when I was 20-something, so although I love tent camping, it’s not something I’ve done recently.

Tent Camping

Tent camping is fun and probably one of the most inexpensive ways to camp. I prefer a large tent – perhaps one that sleeps 6 or 8 (for a 4-person family) so there is a little space for everyone. Dome tents (IMHO) are the easiest to set up and take down. The advantage of tent camping is that you can go anywhere — just toss the tent in the trunk, and away you go! Tent camping in the rain, however? Miserable. And, I recommend having waterproof containers to keep items in. I also implore you to invest in a good air mattress.

Cabin Camping

Some cabins are rustic, where others are just as nice as staying in a hotel – including A/C, heat and amenities. If you want to give camping a try, this is a great way to do that – rent a cabin for a week. Be sure to ask what is provided with the rental (some supply coffee makers, pots, pans and other items) so you know exactly what you need to bring along. Also, many of the campgrounds we visit have accessible units (and worth the ‘ask’ before booking, if that’s what you need)

When going to a busy campground, we opt for a Sunday to Friday rental – when there are less people around – which works best for our special needs family. The added bonus is that you really do get peace and quiet, even in the busiest of places, during the week.

Pop Up Camper

Loving camping as we do, we have a pop up camper. We purchased a used one and made it a family project to renovate. It’s light, we can take it anywhere, and we aren’t sleeping on the ground.

I’ve mentioned that I’m a blog junkie — and my ‘habit’ goes wayyyy back — I follow the Pop Up Princess where you’ll get inspired to re-do your pop up (and she offers lots of advice and how-to’s). And, if you love before-and-after makeovers, THIS blog is for you. She features pop up camper renovations from her readers. Our family pop up renovation was featured on her blog in 2016.

Trailers and Motorhomes

These are other great options if you’re avid campers- we just don’t have personal experience with them. RVs can also be rented – another way to try out camping without too much commitment. Many of these options offer the creature comforts of home, and are much more expensive than other options. But, the simplicity of driving a motorhome to a destination and simply parking it (rather than setting up a tent or pop up) is appealing! Perhaps someday we’ll try it!

We LOVE s’mores over a campfire!

Camping as a Special Needs Family

It takes some additional planning, but we’ve learned how to make camping enjoyable for all of us – here is how we do it:

  1. Include kids in the plans. Our oldest daughter is awesomely autistic, and is most successful when she knows what comes next. We include both of our kids in choosing where we camp and the food we bring. (Planning a camp menu is super fun, and of course includes (gluten free) s’mores!)
  2. Bring all the things, but don’t do all the things. We need to be sure to have all of the creature comforts of home – favorite pillow, stuffed animal, games and other items to make a trip successful. Having these items makes re-direct easier (“Hey! Why don’t we go play a game of Farkle?!”) and have helped us avoid meltdowns. Conversely, we need to ensure ample downtime throughout the day. Some campgrounds have activities running all the time – large, loud crowds and over-scheduling are recipes for disaster. We pick and choose what to participate in.
  3. Stay for extra days. When we camp, we try to stay for more than a weekend – the time it takes to travel, set up and tear down can test everyone’s limits. Staying for more time allows us to spread out all of the activities we’d like to do with ample down time in between. We also like to camp during the week when it’s less busy.
  4. Keep a schedule. OK, this one is tough on vacation, but we do try to get up and go to bed around the same times. It helps keep some consistency, and that helps reduce anxiety. It helps to create a picture schedule – even if it’s only broken down into morning/afternoon/evening.
  5. Use Stories. If it’s a first-time event, (or if we are going someplace new) we read stories about camping or look up the new spot online and look at pictures. Knowing what to expect will ease anxiety.

Camping can be a fun and relatively inexpensive experience (OK, unless you LOVE camping gadgets. Like, ALL the gadgets, but I digress…). We’re able to modify our trips so that they meet our (special) needs – it’s something we look forward to every summer.

Related Links
Rock Painting for All Abilities

Are you a camping family? List your strategy to create harmony in the comments, below.

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  1. We have the same issue with sand. All of my kids have sensory issues. My oldest won’t even use a towel to dry off after a shower as he hates how it feels. And he tries his hardest to avoid brushing his teeth as he hates the way the brush feels against his teeth and gums. He also HATES sand. And we have done a lot of beach vacations. Now that he is older, he chooses to stay at home on beach days, while my Declan wants to just roll in the stuff. I have actually never been camping. But my husband has taken the older kids and they seemed to enjoy it. These are great tips to think about as the conversation has come up again. We have been trying to think about possible getaways with this pandemic and camping seems like a really great socially distancing option!

    • It really is — there isn’t much else out there (that’s pandemic friendly). It’s hard to find one thing that everyone enjoys – now that Nats is older she will tolerate the beach, and last year, she stayed off the sand but went into the water – with water shoes. She enjoyed floating in a tube, and liked not having her feet touch sand. We have a few Jellystone parks near us – those offer lots to do — there’s a pool, waterpark and beach area – so we can each take the kids to what they like best.

  2. My ex and I took our daughters camping several times a year. Tent camping when the younger was 4 months old. We brought her swing😉

    We took Ben when he was about 4 years old and he loved it. We went with extended family and they set everything up, so we got to enjoy.

    You’ve made me think about how much fun camping is and that maybe we should invest in a new tent. And an air mattress for me😉

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